While interned in a World War I camp in England, a German fitness enthusiast named Joseph Pilates developed a series of strengthening exercises that even his injured comrades could perform from bed. To create muscular resistance, he jerry-rigged equipment out of what was on hand, including bedsprings, which became the basis for a prop that is now known as the “reformer.” As legend has it, when the 1918 influenza hit, all the inmates who followed Pilates’s regimen survived.
Today, the Pilates method is taught in health clubs around the world and has earned a celebrity following for its power to strengthen abs (“the core”) and build long, sinewy muscles. And the reformer, the central piece of training equipment, still revolves around exposed springs surrounded by a structure resembling a bed frame--a look that can be intimidating for first-time users, according to Lynne Johnson, the marketing director at Balanced Body, a manufacturer of Pilates equipment. So to make its best-selling Allegro reformer friendlier, the Sacramento, California, company approached the brand-makeover masters at Ideo.
“They were particularly interested in making an aesthetic statement,” says David Webster, who leads Ideo’s global health and wellness practice. “If you look at the world of Pilates machines, the icon really still was the hospital bed that Joseph Pilates did a lot of experimentation on, and machines kind of looked like glorified version of that hospital bed with a bunch of generic hardware added to them.” For the Allegro 2, Balanced Body wanted to maintain all the functionality of while streamlining the machine, and they wanted it done with an aggressive timeline of eight weeks.
“The first thing that we did was hide the adjustment points,” says Jörg Student, Ideo’s lead designer on the project. The reformer has to be adjusted for body height as well as different exercises. “There’s just a bunch of visual clutter and knobs, and we wanted to resolve that,” Webster adds. Some of the finer details include a new foot bar that allows for a wider range of body sizes and that can be adjusted with a single hand, or even one’s feet. To make transitions between exercises smoother, the rope system is also easier to adjust, with a simple-to-use lever. Soft attachment points eliminate any clanking sounds from metal parts coming into contact with the metal frame. The result is an enhanced user experience at a slightly lower cost than the older model. “We eliminated a lot of parts, and we managed to do new things in clever ways,” Webster says.
Balanced Body hopes that the restyled Allegro, which the company claims is the “most successful reformer ever made,” appeals to an even broader audience of users in gyms, studios, and home settings. By objective measures, it looks decidedly less like a torture device, an improvement that its primogenitor would no doubt have appreciated. “If you look at the original machine that Joseph Pilates designed, you have one adjustment possibility, and it’s not very easy to do,” Student says. “He was a showman, a boxer, an exercise man. He wasn’t a designer.”[Photos courtesy Balanced Body]